Merry Hell: Humour Competence and Social Incompetence

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty-Dumpty. ‘which is to be master –  that’s all.’  
                                                                              
(Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass)

Most of us like to think we have a good sense of humour, so much so, in fact, that in personal advertisements it is the most common characteristic people use to advertise themselves and request others to have. Attempts to understand such a central aspect of our self-identity date from at least Plato1 (c.350 BCE) and more recently humour has increasingly become the subject of academic research2. This has given rise to attempts to model humour along various lines, a development which has met with varying success. Here I would like to examine some of the more interesting models and make a contribution to the ongoing discussion. Let me make my own perspectives clear from the outset. Too often commentators and researchers feel that because having a sense of humour would seem to be a cultural universal, they are therefore obliged to make universal claims about their ideas and findings. While there may well be certain common denominators involved in the production and reception of humour (for example, it does always seem to include an element of incongruity) I am wary of theories and models with sweeping claims of universality. As humour is such a fleeting and complex phenomenon, which can involve a combination of cognitive, affective, cultural, social, political, and personal elements, much can be overlooked if it is depicted with brushstrokes too broad, and so I prefer an approach that tries to account for these factors closer to home, as a communicative interaction on a local level, and this is how this piece will proceed. After a review of various models of humour I hope to make a variety of salient points concerning the following: differential humour competence and the place of power in differing interpretations; the interactive roles involved in humour; the tensions between public and private domains; and also to sketch in an outline of the nature of humour networks.  I will then illustrate these ideas with two examples of humour made in public. Note that the notion of humour used here refers to verbal humour only and is inclusive, that is, it includes any verbal communications (from a one-liner to an extended piece of narrative) that intentionally (or unintentionally) provide amusement, though the actual examples used here are short. Also, given the aim of this collection, most of the focus will be on humour of a contentious nature. One further qualification, which may seem strange but is necessary, is that the discussion is of humour engaged in by adults with undamaged brains3.